The Hard Way – The Films of Bette Davis Review: Jezebel (1938)

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jezebel


Cast: , ,
Director: William Wyler
Country: USA
Genre: Drama | Romance


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis which runs from November 15th to December 8th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

Early on in William Wyler’s 1938 film Jezebel, Julie (Bette Davis) confronts Preston (Henry Fonda), her fiancée. She wants to scold him for dismissing a dress fitting he had promised to attend with her as he casually dismisses the importance of the Olympus Ball they were to attend together. For Preston, the Ball, the dress fitting and even Julie herself, belongs in the simple world of women and hold very little importance in the greater scheme of life. With a quivering voice, a downcast chin and upturned eyes Davis evokes a structured vulnerability that is both ironic and manipulative. She confronts him with incredible power and with a sense that she will show him how “unimportant” the ball can be. The act of petty revenge she will enact is one that will ironically damn her. The outcome of her behavior, however, demonstrates a society whose social queues and institutions are inevitably tied to the honor of the woman.

Few actors ever bridged the gender gap as beautifully as Bette Davis who brought true gravitas to the so-called women’s picture. The genre is famously seeped in melodrama and offered rare importance to the trials and tribulations of the female. Jezebel is one of the more upscale entries in the genre…

Few actors ever bridged the gender gap as beautifully as Bette Davis who brought true gravitas to the so-called women’s picture. The genre is famously seeped in melodrama and offered rare importance to the trials and tribulations of the female. Jezebel is one of the more upscale entries in the genre, and is often cited an essential precursor to Gone with the Wind. Much like Scarlett O’Hara, Julie is a headstrong southern girl whose essential weakness is her pride. Based on a play of the same name, the film’s script pokes holes in the understanding of the role of women within this society. At many crucial moments Julie bemoans the limitations of her gender – not because biologically women are inferior but rather the ingrained social institutions have diminished their power and mobility within the world. Julie has no choice but to fight her battles through her feminine guiles and through her sexuality because these are the tools she has been given within a society of inequality.

Bette-Davis

As Julie’s manipulative behavior endangers the men in her life once again, she comments that she envies men who are able to challenge their enemy in a fight to the death. How much more simple life would be if she could do the same! A lesser actor and lesser filmmaker would perhaps play this scene differently, suggesting the folly of the feminine condition. Instead, with shining eyes and a harsh mouth there is an impenetrable rage burning below the surface of Bette Davis’ performance. There is that struggle of living as a woman and the burden of having to live up to the oppressive idea of female honor. All of Julie’s actions from her red dress to the duel to the film’s final moments, it is Julie inciting chaos on the system that is restricting her to the status of a child. Julie is unfairly characterized throughout the film as a spoiled child, a delicate creature that must be sheltered from the world and from herself. The perception that she no reason and is possessed by emotion is one that damns nearly every man who runs into her. The notion, however, is one that ultimately imprisons Julie rather than empowers her. Even in her final moments she has to beg and cry to defy convention in order to save the man she loves.

Wyler is an underrated auteur of the old Hollywood system and demonstrates in this work a clear argument for his strong aesthetic and creative choices and in context of his career, show an artist who is quickly evolving to incorporate greater risks and greater rewards.

Through Julie the beautiful world of the female is exemplified: Glorious fabrics, extravagant mirrors and grand interior spaces. Without ever meaning to, Old Hollywood excelled above else at the mysterious and wonderful world of the private place: the environment and stomping ground of the female. With rare use of real locations only the interior sets ringed with any kind of sincerity and even in the pomp of their artificiality they seemed to reflect the fantasy of the women they enclose. The popularity of the romanticized south was one obsessed with the notion of the Southern Belle, the headstrong, ultra-feminine fighter who could hold off a war and win the heart of every man she met. The Southern Belle was a woman who was meant to be seen and not heard, however in the realm of the home she ruled all (at least within the romanticized version of the Old South, which is inherently problematic). The production design truly leaps off the screen under the scrutinous eye of William Wyler. Wyler was a rare filmmaker during this era that had a lot of control over his final works and had developed a reputation due to his insistence on multiple takes and his bad habit to go over schedule and over-budget. He was also developing a rather unique and complex style, utilizing an unusual depth of focus in his shooting and extravagant camera movements that further engendered physical spaces.

In spite of its many virtues, in many ways Jezebel feels like a practise run for Wyler and Davis, in particular their third collaboration in 1941 for The Little Foxes. Similarly set in the Old South, The Little Foxes amplifies all the strengths of Jezebel and only improves upon them, offering a far darker and richer interpretation of the American South Jezebel is nonetheless a strong contender for one of the best films of 1938 and will forever stand as the film that made Bette Davis a star. Wyler is an underrated auteur of the old Hollywood system and demonstrates in this work a clear argument for his strong aesthetic and creative choices and in context of his career, show an artist who is quickly evolving to incorporate greater risks and greater rewards.

[notification type=”star”]75/100 ~ GOOD. In spite of its many virtues, in many ways Jezebel feels like a practise run for Wyler and Davis, in particular their third collaboration in 1941 for The Little Foxes. Similarly set in the Old South, The Little Foxes amplifies all the strengths of Jezebel and only improves upon them.[/notification]

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About Author

Justine Smith is a freelance writer living and working in Montreal, Quebec. She has a great passion for offbeat and obscure cinema and is continually working to challenge popular assumptions and interpretations of the screen.